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His major challenge is to build bipartisanship. In practice this translates to bringing the middle over the extreme, in both parties, but especially within his party.
US President Joe Biden took office with two clear priorities: getting control over the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 500,000 Americans, and restoring the US economy. He also promised to address equity issues, structural racism, Climate change, immigration and infrastructure. Encountering a bitterly polarized electorate and partisanship in the weeks after his election, the impact of former President Trump and “Trumpism”, an evenly divided Congress, whose cooperation is a must for his agenda to go through, Biden must act quickly. As he confronts these domestic challenges, many question whether Biden has the resources, authority, and strategic attention needed to assume the responsibility of international leadership.
Three propositions help us understand his agenda and thinking: Rebuild American power at home, building bipartisanship, identifying short- and long-term security priorities that highlight need for both change and continuity with the administrations of his two predecessors, Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Can the Biden chart course for a new American security (which includes both geo economic and geo strategic) policy given the unprecedented level of polarisation and political gridlock in the United States? Can this administration pursue an intersected foreign and domestic policy that would “build back better”?
Democrats argue that there is no incompatibility between international leadership and rebuilding democracy, the economy and internal resilience. The emphasis is on the “intersectionality” of internal-external security intrinsic in “democratic security” where the US would lead through the power of example of its democracy’s resilience and ability to self-correct. In his first foreign policy speech delivered in the Department of State, Biden made clear that America was back but with a difference: the nexus between foreign and domestic policy would be to the benefit of the middle class. This vision, which Biden called “a foreign policy for the middle class” recognized links between economic displacement and problems at home and the US role abroad. Supporting a multilateralist approach to managing the shifting global balance of power, globalization, and emerging technologies “with a new liberal internationalism”, this approach aims to resolve democratic, economic and societal security at the individual, national and international levels. This thinking is not new: a September 2020 Carnegie Report had warned that to be strong abroad US would have to be strong at home. In fact, the “hawks doves and isolationists and neoconservatives…all agree that a critical pillar of US power lies in its middle class”. Trouble was that even before the pandemic pushed the country into deep economic crisis, America’s middle class was by many accounts, insecure due to the economic challenges brought about by globalization, technological change, financial imbalances, and fiscal policy strains. Further, aggravated tensions over racial injustice contributed to a social unrest that brought American society and politics to a brink. As middle class fears and anxieties moved to anger on trade policy it provided for Trump victory, rising protectionism and an America First policy. Thus, economic policy became and continues to be the focus and political consensus to help “communities, small businesses, and workers adjust to an interdependent global economy whose trajectory is increasingly shaped by large multinational corporations and labor-saving technologies” has integrated domestic and foreign economic policy. Thus, Biden administration’s challenge is to prove that international trade represents an opportunity for economic growth, as American middle class moves beyond manufacturing jobs. A February 2020 Gallup poll showing 79% of Americans supporting international trade for growth will help Biden ponder re-entering trade pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The challenge is to keep “America First” as part of his promise to the middle class, while turning global. As Covid vaccine diplomacy has shown, problems at home have solutions nesting in global supply chains.
His other major challenge is to build bipartisanship. In practice this translates to bringing the middle over the extreme, in both parties, but especially within his party. Bipartisanship presumes that governance is above campaigning and internal party jockeying. At the core is the issue of cabinet confirmations and progressive wing’s desires for different personnel and policy from that of the White House. Dawdling progress on the announced agenda due to slow confirmations will affect presidential approval rating as well as how quickly bills like the 1.9 billion stimulus as also the Voting Rights and Police Reform Bills would become laws. The hurdle for all legislations so crucial for the Biden administration is the still intact “Senate Filibuster” and the rules that govern bill reconciliations. Most important though is the complaint about the administration’s lack of engagement with the Congress as the issue of airstrikes over Syria has shown. Partisan voting in the Senate would indeed hamper the administrative pace needed to realise policy goals.
Secondly, by highlighting a high bar of civility and probity while navigating partisan conflicts that his government would pursue in order to restore bipartisanship, the President’s challenge would come not only from the Republicans, but also from his own party. As amplified during the various confirmation hearings, there is a tussle between moderates and Progressives within Democratic party as was visible in the case of Neera Tanden (CEO of the Centre for American Progress), the White House choice for heading the Office of the Management and Budget (a key executive agency which works closely with the Congress on President’s budget proposals). Her nomination has been withdrawn given Democrat Senator Manchin’s (W. Va), determined opposition. Republican Senators who were in support of many of his other cabinet choices such as Secretaries of State, Defence, Treasury, Trade, Homeland Security among others, also did not give support. Clearly, Biden’s concentration on getting his cabinet picks confirmed and push the stimulus bill that would help economic recovery and the average American ravaged by the pandemic has faced hurdles. Even with the Senate evenly divided (50-50) giving the Democrats the edge due to Vice President Harris’ vote to break any tie, he still needs help from Republicans rather than just the progressives of his party to get his agenda rolling in the first hundred days. However, the Democrats have pushed Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill to the debate in the Senate to clinch a new stimulus law well before its official 14 March deadline. As all of them have voted, that bill will pass eventually on party lines.
Biden’s biggest challenge of getting started on his agenda with the planning for economic recovery faces other political problems. The resurgence of the Republicans after the impeachment trial, the upcoming 2022 Congressional Elections, the 2024 elections impact it in significant ways. Beginning with the political messaging to actual philosophical differences, the Republicans and Democrats are starkly divided. The GOP believes that economy did very well before Covid 19 and argues that it would bring back the “American Dream”. They believe that Americans who voted for Trump would not believe or support a socialist America with a big government that recklessly spends without specifically addressing targeted communities. Communities depending on coal industry or state economies depending on oil such as Alaska for instance are anxious about the politics of the “New Green Deal” proposed by the Progressives from the Democrat party. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R- Ala.), a moderate representing Alaska would thus play an important role in the Senate Committee for Energy and Natural Resources, be it the confirmation process or passing bills that relate to energy issues. Biden’s green energy agenda also faces conflict between organized labour and industry over unionization, wages and other workplace issues.
Republicans are well aware that the margins of Democratic Congressional wins, especially in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia are not very large. They hope that their voters will step back from being just angry and extreme and begin to back moderate, constitutionalist compassionate members of the party that would help them win in the 2020 elections. Impact of former President Trump is also calculated as was evident in last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Florida. This annual political conference attended by conservative activists and elected officials from across the United States is hosted by the American Conservative Union. Trump’s address which hinted at tantalizing comeback plans and campaign promises have energized House Republicans in particular. Many feel that Biden’s promise of bipartisanship has not kept the faith as it has not translated to appointment of Republicans in the cabinet. For the Democrats, unless Republicans quickly come close to the 1.9 trillion figure of the stimulus bill the issue will be resolved on party lines.
Democrats point to Biden’s cabinet and staffing choices as reflective of his pledge to put together a diverse cabinet. They are proud of the representative nature of the members of his cabinet, especially people like Janet Yellen, who at 74 is Treasury Secretary, the first women to lead the department. The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra is the first Latino to head HHS, while Deb Haaland, nominated for Secretary of the Interior Department, is the first Native American to serve in a cabinet position. A Representative from New Mexico, the progressives lobbied for her to be the head of Interior. Biden also chose Michael S. Regan to be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Brenda Mallory, to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. Both Regan and Mallory are black, as is Cecilia Rouse, the head of White House Council of Economic Advisors. He has also appointed 55 Indian Americans to key leadership positions like Swati Mohan, Vivek Murthy, Mala Adiga, Sumona Guha, Shanthi Kalathil and Tarun Chabhra amongst others.
Tom Vilsack, nominated for Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, served two terms in the same position under President Obama, and Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veteran Affairs, was Obama’s chief of staff for four years as well as serving as his principal deputy national security adviser. Biden has chosen Merrick Garland to be Attorney General, Department of Justice, and Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a presidential candidate in 2020, the first openly gay person to be Secretary of Transport.
While he encountered some criticism for appointing many officials who served under Obama, the decades of experience and service in the field have made many of his choices welcome. It points to a more institutional bureaucratic input to his policies. Democrats argue that to “build back better”, leading the legislative agenda with the stimulus, immigration, voting rights, police reform, green deal, education and jobs with the right people to execute are what America needs. They believe that these initiatives help the party for the coming 2022 elections and beyond.
Finally Biden’s biggest challenge is the management of “big tech” companies that has complicated bipartisanship as both parties have differing views on how to control them. It may however be tempered as influential reports regarding the danger of the US losing technological advantage as the single largest threat to American recovery at home and leadership abroad have surfaced. Again, the issue of cyber security and AI has domestic and international implications.
Given this array of challenges, Biden must move expeditiously to consolidate the 81 million votes he received with the emerging “Biden Republicans”, a term coined by analyst Greenberg, denoting the number of people who are Republicans but yet have voted for him. These are largely white, affluent middle class suburbs that had voted for Trump earlier. Their support is based on Biden’s welfare state that is dependable for working people and for whom diversity is not an issue. He also needs to bring back “Reagan Democrats” who were white, blue-collar suburbanites and traditionally Democratic, who were alienated as they perceived the party as increasingly disengaged from their concerns and allied with people of colour, academics and cultural “elites.”
In the end, he may have to heed the call from a realistic and pragmatic perspective rather than a purely ideological battle as the evolving political landscape both at home and abroad is filled with constraints and opportunities.
Professor K.P Vijayalakshmi is Professor of US Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
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